Continued from Part 1
- Having important life goals and ensuring those around you support them: Part of empowerment is deciding how you want to live your life, what you want to achieve, and then going after those ambitions rather than doing what others want or what you think you should be doing according to cultural norms. Having healthy relationships means that your partner, family members, and friends support your goals and the things in life that are important to you. It may be helpful to write down your goals and why they are important to you to remind yourself to stay strong if you ever feel discouraged. While a goal of creating world peace is admirable, you are more likely to achieve your goals when they are SMART: specific, measureable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.
- Cultivating and maintaining supportive female friendships, trusting and supporting other women: Women are socialized to distrust, antagonize, compete with, and dislike other women – to align themselves with men and give their time and energy to them. This can make cultivating and maintaining supportive relationships with other women, or even politically organizing with them, difficult or challenging, but ultimately one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself. If you’re looking to make female friends you can post an ad on craigslist or Meetup, you could join a club, craft, sport, or volunteer group, or try to make friends through your school, job, or faith community. For many women it takes a lot of work to overcome the internalized misogyny that is preventing them from having fulfilling friendships or working together with other women. If this is something you struggle with, try to keep the following tips in mind: Support is a two-way street – try being the friend you’d like to have. Avoid things like talking about other women behind their back and name calling (even if it seems endearing) like bitch or slut. Engage more in celebrating other women’s successes, being emotionally supportive, and giving other women the benefit of the doubt and not rushing to judgement.
Politically speaking try to avoid horizontal hostility and identity politics – you don’t have to agree 100% with someone to show solidarity and build coalitions for common causes. Learn about the cultures of women who are different from you by reading books and watching documentaries, but don’t assume this makes you an expert. If you’re offering political support to women of a different race, class, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. than yourself, make sure you do so respectfully – ask how you can be involved if at all, don’t presume to speak for the group or assume authority, don’t interrupt or talk over others, insert your own opinions, start arguments, or derail conversations, and avoid power struggles and cliques – in short, let the group decide what their objectives are and what your role will be in them and respect their rules, conditions for participation, and code of conduct. If you have concerns about the group bring them up privately to leadership and respect their response – if asked to leave the group do so with maturity and equanimity. Avoid airing dirty laundry about other women or groups – public critiques should be respectful, grounded in feminist analysis, and aimed at principles, not personal attacks.
- Being able to control your reproduction: Physical, intellectual, psychological, spiritual, and financial autonomy are all essential for personal empowerment. Pregnancy, labor, and birth can be taxing or stressful for women in all these areas, therefore, you should have the right to decide if and when to have children and how many. In the US there are many options for controlling your reproduction including hormonal contraception, e.g. the pill, ring, implant, shot, or some intrauterine devices (IUDs), non-hormonal contraception, also called barrier methods, e.g. condom, sponge, diaphragm, or cervical cap, fertility awareness method, also called natural family planning or rhythm method (there are free apps you can use to track your menstrual cycle), and abstinence. In the US, if you’re interested in hormonal contraception, many are free or low-cost if you have Medicaid, Medicare, or private insurance due to provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA also mandates that your annual gynecological exam that is required for a birth control prescription to also be fully covered by your insurance provider. If you do not have insurance many community health programs offer low- or no-cost exams and other preventative care appointments.
At your annual exam your doctor will take a swab of your cervix to check for abnormal cells, a procedure called a pap smear, test you for certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (but not necessarily all of them so if you suspect you may have been exposed make sure to ask your doctor to test you), often will do palpation exam of your breasts, and sometimes will check your iron levels or other lab work. The exam shouldn’t be any more painful than a little discomfort so if your doctor is causing you pain you have the right to ask them to stop the exam. Your doctor should also be explaining everything they’re going to do before they do it and answer any questions you have.
The office will call you in a few days to tell you the results of your pap smear. If they detected abnormal cells it is most likely because you have been exposed to a strain of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and they will ask you to come in for a biopsy of your cervix. If the biopsy results are positive for certain strains of malignant HPV they will go over your treatment options. If you’re sexually active it is important to get your annual pap smear because if left untreated some types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer, but it’s important to note that most women who have their abnormal cells treated do not go on to develop cancer and are able to maintain healthy cervical tissue.
Although not viable as a long-term contraception method, if you have a lapse in your birth control that results in unprotected sex you can get “the morning-after pill,” or emergency contraception (EC), over the counter and take it within 72 hours to prevent pregnancy. EC usually costs between $35-60, with the generic version being less expensive than the brand name version, Plan B. If your local pharmacy only has Plan B, there is a $10 coupon you can get on their website, which also has information about how it works, side effects, and an FAQ. If you have health insurance, you may be able to use it to purchase EC so ask a pharmacist for help if this is an option for you. You can also order a generic version of EC to have on hand in case you need it.
If you find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy you can obtain either a surgical or medication abortion to terminate the pregnancy. If you are in a country in which abortion access is restricted or illegal you can contact Women on Web or Women on Waves for help. In the US although Planned Parenthood is the most well known abortion provider, there are various local providers as well. Every state has its own laws pertaining to abortion services so make sure you call your local clinic and make an appointment as soon as possible – they usually won’t be able to see you for a few days, so you have time to think about it and change your mind if you want, but the longer you wait the fewer options you have.
NOTE: It is imperative that you call an actual abortion clinic and not a “crisis pregnancy center.” These are intended to confuse you and they are frauds. When you show up for your appointment, instead of counseling you they will try intimidate you, sometimes traumatically, into deciding not to have an abortion. They will tell you misinformation about abortion causing breast cancer, suicidality, or infertility [it doesn’t]. They will tell you that they will help you and provide you with financial and material resources for you and your baby [they won’t]. At an actual clinic they will give you accurate information and resources for adoption or prenatal care if you do end up choosing not to terminate the pregnancy and they will provide you with respectful, supportive care without trying to coerce, shame, or scare you.
Being able to control your reproduction also means being able to make choices about your pregnancy, birth, and postpartum if you find yourself with a wanted pregnancy. If this is the case, firstly congratulations! And secondly you should know that you also have a number of rights as a pregnant, birthing, and postpartum patient, including the right to privacy, to choose your midwife or physician, choose your birth setting, information about benefits and risks of procedures, drugs, tests, or treatments, to accept or refuse any of these and to have your choices honored, to change your mind or withdraw your consent at any time, receive care that is appropriate for your cultural or religious background, communication in your preferred language, have family members or support persons of your choice present, freedom of movement during labor, and uninterrupted contact with your baby.
For many women childbirth can be a fulfilling and empowering experience, but for many women, it can leave them feeling traumatized if they experienced induction, poor pain relief, feelings of loss of control, high levels of medical intervention, not being listened to, lack of information or explanation, lack of privacy and dignity, poor postnatal care, or previous trauma, among other factors. For this reason many women opt to hire a birth doula to assist with various aspects of emotional support, physical support, education, and advocacy during childbirth. Doulas can help you make a birth plan with all of your preferences that will be given to the medical staff assisting with your labor and delivery. Whether you decide to hire a doula or not, make sure you take childbirth classes if it’s your first pregnancy to prepare you for all of the different things that can come up during labor. Many women suffer injuries from childbirth that go overlooked or undertreated by their doctors. If you have lingering postpartum pain or other health issues and your doctor doesn’t take them seriously make sure you find a healthcare professional who does.
- Learning self-sufficiency skills: Learning to be self-sufficient can be one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself. The more skills you learn and master the more time, energy, and money you can save – plus you get the satisfaction of a job well done that can be a major confidence-booster. At the very least if you do choose to hire someone, your increased knowledge of the skill or trade will help you know whether they’re doing good work at a fair price or whether they’re trying to rip you off. Some areas of self-sufficiency skills include: automotive, bicycle, and other vehicle repair/maintenance, home repair/maintenance and remodelling, farming/gardening, trapping/hunting/animal raising, butchering, fishing, weaponsmithing/repair, food preservation, radio operation, knot-tying, pest-control, sewing/weaving/knitting, cooking/baking, woodworking/carpentry, plumbing, computer programming, accounting/bookkeeping/tax preparation, survival skills, first aid, foraging, electronics repair, and welding. A lot of community colleges will offer these kinds of classes at a low cost so introductory-level mastery is can be easily accessible. You may also be able to find local craft or trade groups that offer classes or lessons, or you may be able to volunteer somewhere in exchange for learning the skill. And if nothing else there are always YouTube videos, library books, and the trial-by-error learning process.
- Being physically fit and strong: Being physically fit and strong not only helps you escape and survive potentially dangerous situations, but also builds up your confidence and self-esteem, which plummet for most girls when they hit puberty. The keys to maintaining good physical fitness are to make it a part of your everyday life, make a commitment to prioritizing it, and make it something you enjoy doing. This could be a group sport or activity or something you do on your own. There are many women’s sports, cardio, weightlifting, and strength training classes or groups that you can find for free or low cost through your local YMCA or parks and recreation department. There also lots of books, apps, websites, and videos you can utilize for individual training. You don’t need an expensive personal trainer or elaborate equipment to get started – you just need the motivation.
Part of physical fitness is also ensuring that you maintain a healthy weight, diet, and relationship with food. If you have an eating disorder or are underweight it is imperative that you seek treatment because if left untreated could become a life-threatening condition. The good news is that most women who seek treatment for their eating disorders recover and go on to maintain healthy a weight and relationship with food. As with other mental health issues, there is no one-size-fits-all path to recovery – make sure you try various treatment options until you find one that works for you. If you need to lose weight, whatever diet, meaning nutritional program, you decide on make sure you research it thoroughly so that you’re not setting yourself up for failure. Don’t engage in temporary, or “crash,” diets just to lose weight because that usually means you will gain back the weight after you stop dieting, commonly referred to as “yo-yo dieting.” Your diet should be something that you can easily fit into your lifestyle over the long term and shouldn’t require drastic changes or cumbersome restriction. Don’t get obsessed with a number on a scale – let your body find the weight that feels naturally comfortable and that will also keep you healthy.
Try to learn as much as you can about nutrition, your body’s needs, and how to heal your relationship with food, which may require professional assistance from a psychologist, therapist, or dietitian. Many dieticians will offer free consultations and many insurance plans will cover follow-up visits with a small co-pay, so if you’re overwhelmed with where to start or what nutritional program is right for you, it may be a good idea to make an appointment to talk about your options. Many communities will offer free weight-loss classes or support groups as well. Once you develop a nutritional and fitness plan, there are many free apps and websites you can use to help you stay on track and reach your goals.
- Rejecting feminine grooming rituals and beauty practices: As documented by feminist theorist Sheila Jeffreys, socially prescribed feminine grooming rituals and beauty practices – that are so pervasive as to be rendered “natural” – have numerous harmful side effects for women both physical and psychological. Thus rejecting these social mandates is critical for personal empowerment. Feminine clothing such as dresses, bras, spanx, and high heels are often restrictive and uncomfortable – they can prevent you from running or fighting, and can cause damage to your spine or feet. Likewise, shaving or waxing your underarms, legs, and pubic hair, cosmetic surgery, eyebrow threading, waxing or plucking, hairdressing and coloring, manicures and pedicures, anti-aging treatments, and makeup can be expensive, painful, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. All of these beauty practices are psychologically restrictive as they send the message to your subconscious [read: socialization] that your primary function is to be looked at, to be a passive decoration, rather than to be one who acts upon the world: to be an object rather than a subject. Imagine all the things you could accomplish if you used the time and money it takes to conform to societal standards of femininity to instead do something that really fulfills you as a multifaceted human being!
Think about it: there’s a reason that only one half of the population is asked to electively self-harm in such a way, is told that their natural bodies aren’t good enough, while the other half is allowed to be comfortable and free from elaborate and expensive grooming rituals. Spoiler alert: it isn’t because it’s beneficial to women – it’s for the benefit of men and men only. No matter how hard you try to convince yourself, you cannot choose to participate in femininity “for yourself” because it never was and never will be for you. It may make you feel good about yourself temporarily but only because it feels good to be validated by society and by patriarchy. However, that is only a superficial feeling – true self-esteem and confidence come from loving – and wearing – your natural face, your unsupported breasts, your lumpy belly, your unshaven legs, underarms, and pubic hair, your wrinkles, your gray hair, your natural nails, and from wearing comfortable, practical clothing.
- Taking off your hijab when it’s against the law: My Stealthy Freedom is an online social movement that allows women to protest compulsory hijab laws in countries like Iran by sharing photos of themselves with uncovered hair. These brave women are not only empowering themselves but also working toward the liberation of all their fellow countrywomen.
Although this guide has covered a lot, don’t think that you need to try to tackle everything in it all at once. To start, pick something that seems the most interesting to you or that you could benefit the most from. As you find yourself mastering these everyday acts of empowerment, make sure you share these skills with other women through education and support. And no matter what, remember to stay strong on your feminist journey!